The FBI’s National Crime Information Center (NCIC) contains over 89,000 active missing persons cases (as of May 2018). That’s over 89,000 families who are left with a gaping hole in their lives and in their households—missing fathers who taught their children to ride bikes and were never too busy to help out with a science project—mothers who made PB&J sandwiches just right, and never forgot to leave the hall light on. Most notably, many families are left without half of their household income when a parent or guardian goes missing. The missing person may have set up a life insurance policy to ensure their families would be cared for in the event of their death, but stymied law enforcement have recovered no remains, so the insurance company refuses to pay out. The family is left without any soil to begin filling the hole where the missing loved one once stood.
The emotional roller coaster that ensues when a loved one goes missing is fraught with fear, confusion, and desperation for answers. Every waking moment, you wring your hands, hoping the loved one is safe and simply unable to communicate for rational reasons. Days go by—you cooperate with investigators and give them all the available information you have on the missing person. Weeks pass, but life goes on, even amidst a tragedy. When you consider the financial ramifications of picking up after a partner or spouse vanishes, the numbers are discouraging. A 2012 report by Legal Momentum determined the median income for two-parent families was $89,455. The median income for a single mother household was $25,493, while a single father’s income is $36,471. Those single parent incomes account for 31% and 40% of the two-parent income, respectively. How is a single parent suddenly supposed to take care of their family when nearly half their household income evaporates following the disappearance of their partner or spouse?
In the days or weeks following the death of a parent or loved one, the beneficiary of their life insurance policy will contact the company and submit a death certificate to prove the owner of the policy is deceased. In the case of a missing person, there is no death certificate without first coordinating what is called a “presumption of death.” The Indian Evidence Act, Section 108 states presumptions of death can only be made when a person has been missing for at least seven years from the date of the initial missing persons report. This is known as the First Information Report (FIR). After the mandatory period has passed, the beneficiary may receive the claim.
In addition to the too-familiar scenarios normally surrounding missing persons—people who run away, people who are abducted, people who fall off of cruise ships or disappear from trails in national parks, etc.—other events that often fall under this legislation are missing persons who vanish during the calamity of natural disasters, such as tornadoes or hurricanes. After the flood that devastated Uttarakhand in 2013, P Chidabaram, the Finance Minister of India, asked the country’s largest life insurance provider, Life Insurance Corporation of India, to waive the traditional seven year period, having the company sign indemnity bonds so claims could be closed swiftly. The 2018 Atlantic hurricane season was particularly devastating, with two of the total eight hurricanes rated a category three or above. Hurricane Michael tore through the Florida panhandle like tissue paper, blowing Mexico Beach completely off the map. Initially, 285 people were unaccounted for in the town’s population, but was later reduced to 46 as residents were either located post-evacuation, or rescued from the wreckage. The California Camp Fire has killed 60 people to date—the deadliest in history—has displaced thousands of families attempting to outrun the flames, with many unable to contact their loved ones and let them know they’re safe. On November 14, 2018, the Butte County Sheriff’s Office released a list of 103 people who have been reported missing since the blaze began. “If your name is on the list, it means that someone is looking for you,” Sheriff Kory Honea said. “Let us know that you’re okay, so that we can stop our search for you and start looking for someone else.” That list has now swelled to 300 names and is expected to continue climbing.
Working closely with law enforcement is a major tenant of a successful claim on a missing persons’ life insurance policy, particularly on the presumption of death. The Indian Evidence Act only requires a beneficiary to wait seven years from the date of the FIR before filing the claim, but depending on where you live in the United States, law enforcement can use evidence to prove a missing persons’ death, even when a body cannot be found—for example, the case of Mike Williams, a man who went missing on a duck-hunting trip in Florida in 2000. Police found his boat floating abandoned on Lake Seminole, which prompted them to drag the lake in search of his remains. When no trace was found, authorities formed the theory Mr. Williams had fallen off the boat and was subsequently eaten by alligators. This theory of the accident explained why no body was ever recovered, allowing his widow to obtain a death certificate and collect on his $1 million-dollar insurance policy. Seventeen years after her husband was reported missing, Denise Williams was indicted on murder charges after her second husband (and Mike’s best friend), Brian Winchester confessed to killing Mike in conspiracy with his wife for the insurance money.
Law enforcement’s theory about Mike Williams disappearance created a loophole you could drive a truck through, but not all beneficiaries of life insurance policies can depend on this loophole. In some states, with the help of legal representation, beneficiaries of the missing insured can begin legal proceedings that would accelerate the issuance of a death certificate, but this comes with a much higher burden of proof, and demands a pool of evidence that would stand up to the most thorough, independent investigation procedures. In the event such evidence of death cannot be found, there is a procedure in place for those who must wait seven years following the filing of a FIR. After seven years, the beneficiary of the insured, or the heir of the insured, must submit the following documents to the insurance company:
- Claimant’s statement form signed by the nominee of the legal heir
- Copy of the FIR and the missing person’s report filed with the police
- Original policy contract documents or indemnity bond
- Copy of death certificate, or a court order presuming the person is dead after the lapse of seven years
When a loved one goes missing, a family is left in a stasis, paralyzed by their fear and ‘what-if’ games while the world selfishly continues to spin. Eventually, families need to pick up the pieces, a process eased by the financial support set up for them by the missing insured, but only if they can file a claim. If you have recently set up a life insurance policy for your family, educate them on the process of filing a claim should you go missing without a trace.